“There has probably been more written on Christion Dior in his lifetime, and after, than has been penned on any other couturier,” so writes Alexandra Palmer in the introduction to her book Dior: A New Look, A New Enterprise. However, I hadn’t read any of it, so I opened this slim 113-page volume expecting nothing above a very basic introduction. Palmer, the Nora E. Vaughan Senior Curator of Costume at the Royal Ontario Museum, respected author, clothing expert and academic, gave me much, much more.
I can honestly say I have never found such a broad range of information in so few pages. This book which, on first glance, appears to be mostly pictures (ooh, the pictures!) covers not only the clothes Dior was famous for, but also details the business innovations (ooh, the commercial vs. private client sales tables!) of the most successful and innovative couturier of his time.
Dior, as Palmer illustrates, was much more than Bar suits (“Bar” was the name of the fabric used to create the famously full, iconic New Look skirt) and shirtwaist dresses. In one decade, from the launch of his first line in 1947 to his death in 1958, he reestablished a desire for French couture that, during the hardships of war, had become akin to profanity. A champion in the battle against commercial couture piracy, Dior encouraged women to take his dresses to their tailors, calling it a “good plan” to make copies in other colours – a move that not only implied empathy and understanding, but ensured that a woman might be seen in “his” design twice as often. And he found ingenious ways of sidestepping shipping tariffs to keep his clothes affordable in international markets. (Well, affordable enough.) He plucked fashion from the world of privileged indulgence, making it feel accessible – even necessary.
As I read, my respect for this designer (for whom I had never really felt any great affinity) grew exponentially. The business end of the story was interesting, but what ultimately captured me was Dior’s sensitivity to the kinship between style and personality, and the drive to self-expression that never diminishes with age. Having developed his style designing dance and theatre costumes during the war, Dior lifted fashion from years of austerity and privation. His clothes were conceptually complex and three dimensional; it is said he compared his silhouettes to flowers,* with all the variety that implied. Dior offered women real choices. Palmer outlines the designer’s ability to channel both cocotte and coquette, mingling a dissolute, sensual past with a clean, modern future: “[Realizing] the dual images of sophisticate and ingenue in all his haute couture… The brilliance of Dior’s vision was that he managed to commodify his look in so many ways for so many women…”
It occurred to me as I read how different his approach was compared to contemporary Dior, especially in the last decade, that I was 25 when John Galliano took over as head designer in 1997. Even then, I could see an interpretation of femininity narrowing to exclude many more women than it embraced. It was a realization directly responsible for what was, until now, my personal disinterest in that fashion house.
But in fewer pages than it took Canon to explain my camera, Alexandra Palmer has made me a convert. From licensing to marketing strategies, public reception (the Little Below the Knee Club formed to protest Dior’s post-war return to a more traditional feminine silhouette), sales numbers, his dedication to creating a legacy, and the man himself, Palmer creates the sort of well-rounded picture one would expect from a much longer book – and she leaves no doubt that Chrisitan Dior was a true fashion revolutionary.
*Not quoted from the text.
The Dior Spring/Summer collection, 1952
Dior: A New Look, A New Enterprise by Alexandra Palmer, V&A Publishing, 2009
Reviewed by G. Stegelmann